Old School Hack -- Some Thoughts on Mechanics

Just a few ruminations on some of the mechanical bits of Old School Hack, based on the game I ran on February 4th.

The essential task resolution mechanics -- 2d10 to hit and d12 for attribute checks -- were fine but took some getting used to.  Getting used to as in "Wow, I've never really rolled a d12 for anything before" not "Ugh, this just feels wrong." (There's probably a nice sex joke to be made here, but. . .) So, while there was a bit of a learning curve, it was nothing substantial.  We really liked the "face" die though.  Enough to keep us on our toes and hope for the shiny 0.  Except that one time when I forgot that "10" was actually "01," which was kinda embarrassing.

One thing we did have some trouble with was what attribute to check.  There's the very handy diagram on page 16, which was helpful.  And it was certainly key that essential combat checks (like pushing and throwing) had the contested attributes written on the cards.  Again, I think this was just part of the learning curve.  And it could have been headed off with a little more planning on my part.  With a bit more of the adventure in mind, I could have already made some decisions about what sort of checks would be appropriate when.  As I get more experienced with the game, however, I think all that will easily become second nature.

A related "getting used to it" element was the DM rolling against every attribute check, even when such a check would normally be thought of as a static Difficulty -- like climbing a wall.  I really liked this mechanic.  It introduced a random element into things that could then be used for nice set dressing.  If the wall rolled a 1, then it was a crumbly wall with lots of cracks.  If it was a 12, then it was wet.  Such a system also makes you think twice about calling for a check in the first place.  I am rapidly coming around to the idea that checks are only necessary if or when failure would actually add something (other than frustration) to the game.

In my opinion, the two most innovative parts of OSH are Awesome Points and Arenas.  I know lots of systems have some sort of Action point mechanic, but the idea of players awarding other players AP's is just great.  It facilitates teamwork and encouragement in a big way.  It's also a bit counter to most gaming intuition, which is likely why it took us awhile to really get into the Awesome Point swing of things, but once we all did, it was a riot.  By the final combat, they were flying around the table as players tried one awesome thing after another.  Spending the awesome points lead to the awesome ending -- the wizard grabbing the chain, swinging back onto the platform, strangling the cult leader, and tossing him into the pit to hang.

(Note: Yes, I said the wizard.  One thing I noted about our session was minimal differentiation between the classes.  This could be just a function of how they were played, but the wizardly talents got used only once or twice.  The same with the dwarf).

The arena concept was what convinced me I needed to plan a bit more for the game.  I love the idea -- that tactical combat can still matter (a bit) in an abstract system.  Arenas also give some narrative control to the players, as they can create their own arenas in combat through their own actions.  They do take a bit of getting used to, though.  For our final combat, I drew a sketch of the sacrificial chamber on the battlemat, but then had to explain that the hallway going in was one arena, the altar was another, the dais a third, and the narrow walkway between them another.  We grasped it all just fine, but carving up the map like that was different.  The arena idea also encourages some creative place setting, which I am all for but not entirely good at improvising.  Our initial combats were fairly vanilla, but we hit our stride with the cultist ambush in the sewers -- multiple levels, tubes, water, etc -- and the aforementioned final scene.  More planning on my part would have led to better encounters which could have really utilized the arena system.  Thinking about it now, the system is so fluid that a map is almost too static to represent the action!  What would be awesome would be some way to "open" and "close" arenas in a visual way.

My final verdict is OSH is great!  It's system is simple, but challenges me to think about how I game.  Sure, there's a learning curve, but it's something we really got the hang of by the end of our first session.  I really hope to play it again soon.


  1. Good review. Souds like a cool little game.

  2. Thanks! We had a ball. I think it's a nice little bit of game design.

  3. I am planning on running a OSH game this weekend for a bunch of mini-using D&D4e guys (and one total newbie). I was planning on using a cheesex map and they really like their minis, any suggestions on how to use the arenas well on a map?

  4. @m.s. jackson -- Don't let the squares get in the way. That's a big thing for 3.5 & 4E -- the square. But they don't matter in OSH. I think next time, I'll try to use some different colored markers, with different arenas being different colors. Also remember that arenas are fluid, with new ones being created during combat. For example, I had a cultist trying to drown a PC by holding him under water, so I said they were in their own arena because of the unique conditions of the situation.
    Oh -- just thought of something else. Use the whole battlemat! Since squares don't matter, don't be afraid to use the whole mat to sketch out one combat, leaving plenty of space in between arenas to add more arenas. You can connect arenas with a simple line. Let us know how it goes!

  5. Excellent, thank you for the advice! I think the battle map mindset will be the hardest thing to overcome, I have read somewhe else that this game really makes the GM rethink how they set up combats.


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